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Puppies Raised In Prison Go On To Help Disabled Veterans

Gerard Chappell working with his dog, Pete, teaching him how to fetch things for a future disabled veteran.
David DesRoches
Gerard Chappell working with his dog, Pete, teaching him how to fetch things for a future disabled veteran.

Inside Enfield Correctional Institution there are all the expected security measures: Huge steel doors. Armed guards. Barbed-wire fences. Locked gates. 

But in one area of the prison, there's something a little different.

There's a room with a huge mural painted on the back wall. It shows men and women in army fatigues playing with dogs. One woman is in a wheelchair. Inside this room, there are all sorts of props built to mimic items in a home: a refrigerator; a portion of a wall with a light switch on it; a door -- literally a door to nowhere -- in the middle of the room, with a leash attached to a handle.

This room is where inmates train puppies to be service dogs for veterans.

"There's a lot of things that I seen a dog do that I ain't never think a dog could do," said Carlos Santiago, who's been incarcerated for about seven years. "I just thought dogs would bite you, and howl, and that's it. But man, these dogs are smart, man."

Santiago is one of about 20 inmates who gets to train dogs as his job while serving time.  

"So, you know, we started off with basic commands as, sit, stay, here, or what not," he said. "It elevated to, you know, bring an object from a refrigerator back to me, or wheel me around in a wheelchair, or open a door for me."

Santiago was taught how to train the dogs by a group called America's VetDogs. Enfield has a contract to train 10 dogs at a time. VetDogs provides the dog food and other assistance. The prison pays the inmates just as they would for other jobs.

"It's a perfect example of a win-win-win," said Joseph Timbro, a counselor at Enfield. He said the trainers are constantly learning about themselves, and the prison culture has changed, dramatically.  

"This is a prison, it's not always positive, it's not always fun," Timbro said. "So when you walk into this block, now you got 10 dogs, right? I think it takes the tension in the block down, it makes everyone more positive. It's very hard to continue to have a bad day when you come in there and there's 10 dogs of all ages, wagging their tails, you know, they want to be pet."

Prisons have actually been training dogs since the 1980s. A Dominican nun is credited with  bringing the first training program to a Washington state prison back in 1981.

Today, most states have some form of prison-based animal programming. It seems to be working -- inmates have reported feeling less depressed, less aggressive, and more empathetic.

To be selected as trainer, inmates have to pass a battery of tests to make sure they have the right temperament to train dogs. Santiago said he's learned a lot.

"I learned I had no patience," he said. "I learned I had no understanding on, not just a dog, but anyone else's feelings. I always thought for myself or what-not. And you know, sometimes you have to put someone else first, you have to put other things first in your life, to see your wrongdoings, to see what can you work on with yourself."

Credit America's VetDogs
America's VetDogs
Vietnam veteran Bob Rapone with his service dog, Caspar, who was raised by Carlos Santiago, an inmate at Enfield Correctional Institution.

One of the dogs Santiago got to train was Caspar, a big yellow lab, mixed with a little golden retriever. A few months ago, Caspar found a home with Bob Rapone. He's a Vietnam veteran who's been living with PTSD ever since he came home nearly 50 years ago.

"I would have problems, particularly with crowds," Rapone told WNPR. "I'd always be looking for a danger or something, or you know, if I was outside, even on my own property. I'd be scanning the horizon for something that might be going wrong, and that goes way back to Vietnam, you know."

But having Caspar at his side, changed everything.

"I feel so much freer now going into crowds, for example, restaurants or stores, and he's right by my side," he said. "I think because, for one thing, I pay attention to him, therefore I don't pay so much attention to...my horizon and the things around me, and I'm more concentrated on him, which is a good thing."

Caspar can help Rapone get up from a chair. He can turn lights on, grab things from the floor. If Rapone is having a nightmare, Caspar is trained to wake him up. Service dogs like Caspar can respond to around 90 different commands.

Rapone said he'd like to meet the man who raised his canine companion, and thank him. Santiago smiled as he shared some advice for Rapone on how to handle Caspar.

"Take care of my boy," he said. "Man, that's my boy man. Take care of him, he's a good dog."

Santiago talked about life when he gets out, which he hopes will happen in the next year. As he reflects, he's thankful.

"Raising a dog and then knowing that a dog passed stages of training, and then he went on to a vet and a vet's taking care of him, or he's taking care of a vet basically, and you're helping someone out -- just to know that you did that... is a great feeling, man," he said. "A great feeling."

All the Enfield inmates are in the process of being transferred out. That's because it's closing. The state's prison population is down, so the inmates are being sent to different facilities across Connecticut.

The dogs are also moving to another facility, along with the program. But there's no barking, no biting, no anxiety. Just some furry, wagging tails, and eager eyes, ready for the next chapter.

David finds and tells stories about education and learning for WNPR radio and its website. He also teaches journalism and media literacy to high school students, and he starts the year with the lesson: “Conflicts of interest: Real or perceived? Both matter.” He thinks he has a sense of humor, and he also finds writing in the third person awkward, but he does it anyway.

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